The Bébé and the Bathwater

In case you haven't come across any of the reviews or comments or coverage in the press about Bringing Up Bébé over the last month since it was released, here's the basic outline:

American journalist Pamela Druckerman moved to Paris to live with her British husband. They had kids. She noticed that French children behaved differently than American children, was curious about the apparent differences in parenting that led to that, and she wrote a book - Bringing Up Bébé  - about her semi-formal investigation into the question. American parenting being what it is - always on the lookout for the next thing and let's charitably call it, "not very laid back" - there has been a defensive uproar to the charge (not made by Druckerman) that French parents are better.

I happen to like the French - and their country, their cheese, their fully-funded daycare system, and, er, their cheese - and have never really understood the American love (Paris!)/hate (The French!) relationship with them. Maybe that's why I remained engaged and un-offended while reading the book.

Or perhaps it's not the French thing. Perhaps, as so often happens, the loudest yelling got the most press and the subject at hand, namely what was actually in the book, was lost in the fray.

Here's the thing: I liked the book. I think you could too. So let's clear up some of the basic arguments that have been leveled against it so you can get on with enjoying it.

First and foremost, nowhere does Druckerman state that French parents are better nor does she stage an attack on American parents. The defensiveness and anger of journalists, reviewers and commenters about what a great nation America is, how much better than France, and what amazing parents we all are feels irrelevant to me: no one said we weren't. (It probably hasn't helped that the book was introduced by The Wall Street Journal in an excerpt inaccurately titled - by them, not the author - "Why French Parents Are Superior.")

Druckerman is no more “tell[ing] American parents that we’re doing it all wrong” than any other pregnancy or parenting book on the market, most of which highlight what you might do instead of what you are doing. If anything, Druckerman is less hard on American parents and more ambivalent about which path is best than many American books. Have you flipped through the page after page of rigid, judgmental suggestions in What To Expect When You’re Expecting or Super Baby Food lately?

The frustrations Druckerman expresses - out of control children in public spaces, the incompatibility of toddlers with restaurants - are ones we stateside parents express all the time. So why are so many mothers taking issue with her looking for a way to address some of those issues? Perhaps because we are instinctively defensive when we feel an outsider is taking issue with us. That is, it’s OK is we dish about our own relatives (or gender or race) but we bristle when others do. If that’s the case, let's keep in mind that, although her thoughts are about the French, Druckerman is an American too. She is not taking sides against us.

Or perhaps it's critics' basic dislike of the French model she observes. To them, I would say, "It's OK that it’s not your cup of café au lait. Move on. But mischaracterizing the book or the author as having done something reprehensible in even suggesting that we might consider a foreign alternative is like picking a fight with your boyfriend to justify moving out. Just go. It’s all right that you don’t want to take any of this advice. God knows there’s plenty more out there."

Second, Ms. Druckerman having written a piece several years ago for Marie Claire on sorting out a menage a trois for her husband's 40th birthday seems irrelevant to me.* On the contrary, that piece too displayed a clarity and candor (and a refreshingly domestic tone, unlike most American journalism on the subject of sex) that I found appealing. Having a sex life and being willing to write about it doesn't, to my mind, disqualify a writer from also writing about parenting.

The furor over Druckerman having asked Marie Claire to remove the most prominent links to that piece only validates her apparent concern that readers would be so distracted by her having a racy (but not very) sexual past that we would be unable to judge her book on parenting on its merits alone. It's just not that big a deal.

Third, the charge that Ms. Druckerman is focusing on the upper middle class of Parisians and that the book is therefore not a comprehensive representation of all parents in France is silly. I would encourage critics to produce any book on parenting that surveys and speaks to an entire nation's population.

You can get back to me. I'll wait.

Nothing? Yeah. I figured.

Let's keep in mind that the audience for Bringing Up Bébé is of the same class in America: parenting philosophies self-select to the upper classes on both sides of the Atlantic. If you have the time and resources to develop a philosophy of anything (let alone write extensive comments or a book on them), you are in the middle and upper classes. Working two jobs and barely getting by do not allow for a lot of time with Dr. Sears or Ms. Druckerman.

Fourth, Forbes, among others, published a "rebuttal" calling into question the wisdom of French parenting based on America's higher incidence of entrepreneurialism and billionaires. (I use quotes because a rebuttal implies that there was an initial attack, which I don't believe that there was.) Again, this seems like a red herring to me. Within this kind of casually anecdotal logic, you might suggest that, given the US’s infant mortality rate - a stunning and embarassing 34th, behind Cuba and Japan - we should reconsider communism or acquiring an emporer to correct our childbirth problem. (France placed 9th, by the way.)

Yes, French schools are notoriously rigid. Yes, it is possible that that rigidity does not lend itself to the inventive, realize-your-dream thinking that is foundational to America’s national character. Yes, French parents' early childhood focus on a "cadre" (or "frame") may feel too impersonal or strict for many American parents. On the other hand, that same school system provides well-regulated, affordable childcare and preschool, something shamefully absent in the United States, and that cadre appears to produce better-behaved small children

The ongoing argument between Europe’s educational model (best typified in the semi-socialist Scandinavian countries where taxes are exorbitant but everyone is educated and no one carries student debt) and the American model (where education is uneven at best, providing amazing opportunities for self-realization for some and no meaningful opportunities or funding for many) will continue. It’s a difficult problem and a complex comparison. But it is not the subject of this book. Druckerman’s observations are limited to pregnancy and early childhood: the playground, home life with small children, day care and preschool.

(The mischaracterizations in these pieces of what Druckerman actually says does not aid their case.**)

Finally, and importantly, Bringing Up Bébé does not pretend to be a comprehensive socio-psychological survey of French and American parenting. Much of the criticism suggests that many readers believe it is – or ought to be - before they’re willing to consider any of the author's input.

Bringing Up Bébé is part autobiography, part anecdote and part ad hoc research. Druckerman interviews doctors, caregivers, researchers and parenting experts (such as they are), in addition to parents themselves, but the book does not pretend to be more than an informal survey. She falls somewhere on the spectrum between Malcolm Gladwell (aggregating, filtering and commenting on other people’s research, see: OutliersThe Tipping Point, and Blink) and Adam Gopnik (Paris to the Moon’s essays on life with children in Paris).

As a mother and journalist, Druckerman does, I think, an admirable job of teasing out the unspoken but accepted cultural principles of child-rearing in France. That her book is not the footnoted final word on all matters of difference between the two countries’ systems of child-rearing – and which is definitively better – does not make it a bad book, an offensive one or disqualify it from my bookshelf.

Likewise, I did not reject Tina Fey’s autobiography for not providing me with a concrete, research-based roadmap to success in television comedy, nor am I offended that Gladwell draws his own conclusions about the research he relates. Yes, these are lighter weight approaches than primary research might present (which would have its own slant on things and, I venture, also draw critical bile from disagreeing parents). Yes, sometimes I disagree with their conclusions, but I didn’t go into reading these books with an expectation that their observations would be comprehensive, fully backed up and agreed to by experts or line up exactly with what I have observed or would have done myself. On the contrary, it’s the differences and subjectivity in their observations - their humanity - that makes them readable, interesting and potentially useful.

Bottom line, all this publicity is great for the book, so it probably needs no defense: people are talking about it, and buying it, and, as writer myself, I'm glad of that, and I'm sure Druckerman will brook the mischaracterizations just fine and laugh all the way to the bank (such as it is these days in publishing).

 

For those of you who have not read the book but are considering it, please do. Despite the many vocal and offended critics, there is nothing irresponsible in it, nor does it  prescribe a whole-hearted embrace of all things French, from formula feeding to fromage. I don't believe, nor does Ms. Druckerman, as evident from her own choices, that raising children entirely in the French model is the correct choice. Primarily, Bringing Up Bébé is a bright, interesting read and and there's quite a lot of insight in it that I've been glad to have. Especially the part about a cheese course every day at lunch. We're definitely starting that tomorrow. There are some things that, as a responsible parent, you just have to do for the good of your child.

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Footnotes and References

*Slate's Rachael Larimore on Marie Claire and her follow-up.

**A piece in The New York Times: "The French leave their babies crying on their own if they’re not sleeping through the night by the time they’re 4 months old." On the contrary, Druckerman notes that this wait is brief - very brief: a "pause" she calls it - and nothing like the "cry it out" solutions that many American parents publicly eschew but privately take on in desperation after a year or more of interrupted sleep. 

Erika Brown Ekiel's article at Forbes.com deliberately - and provocatively - mischaracterizes an entire segment of the book with, "Most of the parents Druckerman profiles discourage their children from standing out, speaking up or getting in the way of their parents’ good time. The advice they dole out is focused on keeping one’s child in his place, rather than enabling him to imagine and construct one of his own." Again, on the contrary, Druckerman's subject parents provide a structure within which children are free to stand out and imagine, albeit without the constant, hovering assistance of their parents. And the "good time" she references escapes me: Druckerman writes about French mothers' efforts to transcend guilt about being a bad mother for, say, having a job, or time to eat an adult meal. I suppose that is a "good time," albeit not the cocktails and parties Ekiel implies.  

An actual interview with Druckerman at the Huffington Post

A more balanced write-up at NPR.com.

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